GILGO BEACH, L.I. — Ten years ago tonight, on Dec. 11, 2010, Suffolk County Police Officer John Malia and his cadaver dog made a startling discovery in the brush off Ocean Parkway in Gilgo Beach, Long Island.
They found the skeletal remains of Melissa Barthelemy, a petite CraigsList escort who had disappeared from the Bronx the year before. Her body was wrapped in burlap.
Two days later, the bodies of three more sex workers were found and the Long Island Serial Killer (LISK) investigation was born.
"In the early cases, they were picked up in New York City," Dominick Varrone, who was Chief of Detectives when the discoveries were made, told PIX11 News about the initial victims.
By April 2011, six more sets of remains were found along Ocean Parkway, in the Gilgo/Oak/Jones beaches area, roughly 35 miles east of Manhattan. Some of the remains were tied to female torsos discovered in Manorville — 40 miles to the east — in 2000 and 2003.
Now, as Suffolk County Police are a decade into the investigation, assisted by the FBI, the only thing publicly new are photos of a black belt and the identity of one, dismembered victim.
"We believe the belt was handled by the suspect," Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said in January this year, holding up photos of two initials monogrammed on the inside of the belt, either HM or WH.
This week, as the tenth anniversary of the investigation was approaching, the police department released two more photos of the belt on a website they've set up, gilgonews.com. One of the pictures showed a piece of the weathered, black leather material on one end of the belt.
The identity of Jane Doe No. 6, whose torso was discovered in the woods of Manorville in November 2000, was revealed in May to be Valerie Mack, who was 24 when she vanished from Port Republic, New Jersey that year. The FBI used a public genealogy website and found the victim's aunt. Police said Mack was an escort who mostly worked in Philadelphia and they didn't think she was linked to Atlantic City, where four barefoot sex workers were found dead in a ditch in 2006 behind the Golden Key Motel.
The Gilgo Beach investigation might never have happened if a search hadn't been launched for Shannan Gilbert, a CraigsList escort who disappeared on May 1, 2010. Police were looking for Gilbert on that December night, when they found Barthelemy instead.
Varrone and other investigators think a frantic Gilbert — who had mental health and drug issues — ran screaming from a john's house on May 1, 2010 and ended up trapped in an Oak Beach marsh, where she succumbed to the elements. Her body wasn't discovered until a year after the first Gilgo victims were found.
But Gilbert’s late mother and family attorney, John Ray, very much believed that Gilbert was being targeted by the serial killer, when she started banging on doors in Oak Beach in the early hours of May 1, 2010.
“They’re trying to kill me,” she’s heard screaming in a 911 call that was never released publicly.
John Ray, who has spent years studying the case, observed to PIX11 News in 2017 of the unsolved murders, “It appears to be a constellation of people” involved.
But retired Chief Varrone said the circumstances surrounding Shannan Gilbert’s hire by a client in Oak Beach don’t match what happened with the other victims.
“It was totally different, the way she was contacted,” Varrone told PIX11 News.
Varrone said Gilbert’s Oak Beach client made no attempt to disguise his cell phone number and the records back up their appointment time. Gilbert became agitated and started screaming, running door to door, during those early hours of May 1, 2010.
Varrone said the other women were dealing with someone who was cagey and covering his tracks.
“Throw away telephones,” Varrone said in 2019.
Varrone said he believes the killer could have used the Robert Moses Causeway to get to the barrier island from Long Island, traveling west to dispose of the bodies. The former chief reminded us that when Melissa Barthelemy first disappeared in 2009, the suspected killer used her cell phone multiple times to call Barthelemy’s little sister upstate.
He taunted the 16-year-old girl with nasty words about Barthelemy’s profession, something the family wasn’t aware of. At least one of his calls was made from the Penn Station area in Manhattan.
The case was being investigated by the NYPD, because Barthelemy had vanished from her Bronx apartment. But it was Suffolk County Detective John Malia, along with his K-9 dog, who found Barthelemy in the brush at Gilgo on Dec. 11, 2010. At least two of the first four women discovered were wrapped in burlap.
A man who remains a person of interest in the Gilgo case — Manorville carpenter John Bittrolff — was convicted of killing two sex workers in the early 1990s. Their bodies were discovered in the Manorville area in sexual poses, with their left shoes missing. Bittrolff’s wife doesn’t believe he killed anyone, even though his DNA was found on the two victims he was convicted of murdering.
Bittrolff wasn’t arrested until 2014, after his brother’s familial DNA tied him to the unsolved cases from the early 1990s.
Another person whose name keeps getting dragged into the Gilgo Beach investigation is former Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke. Burke was arrested in 2015, accused of beating a shackled, drug-addicted suspect who had stolen sex toys and porn tapes from Burke’s official police vehicle. Burke had been investigated in the 1990s by Internal Affairs for his association with prostitutes.
Years later, an escort on Long Island was put before the cameras by John Ray, the woman claiming Burke abused her in a bathroom on Oak Beach and demanded sex during a party there.
But retired Chief Varrone, who was forced out of his position by Burke in late 2011 — two days after Shannan Gilbert’s body was found — doesn’t think Burke is involved in the Gilgo women’s disappearances.
“I don’t believe so, I really don’t,” Varrone said in 2019. “Nor do I believe it was a resident of Oak Beach. This is a dumping area,” he said of Gilgo Beach.
The Ocean Parkway shoulder has been widened in recent years, and the white crosses that paid tribute to the victims removed.
Former Chief Varrone recalled in 2019 there was a battle for control — and media attention — between the late Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Doermer and former District Attorney Tom Spota. Spota was convicted at trial this year of trying to cover up former Chief Burke’s beating of a prisoner.
Now it's up to a new district attorney and a police commissioner with FBI experience to solve this baffling case, where the first victim dates back to at least 1996, if not earlier.