Netflix’s Lost Girls is officially available for streaming, and if you’re wondering whether or not it’s based on a true story, unfortunately, it is. The film follows Mari Gilbert, a mother desperately trying to find her 24-year-old daughter, Shannan, after she mysteriously disappears. Mari’s determination to find the truth leads to the police uncovering the murders of several sex workers—a series of unsolved crimes that were committed by a man known only as the Long Island Serial Killer. Here’s what really happened, but warning, the details are upsetting.
The murders happened in the mid-aughts.
The Long Island Serial Killer is thought to have murdered at least 10 people—his victims were mainly female sex workers, whose bodies he left on the South Shore of Long Island. When the first victims were found in 2010, the authorities immediately suspected a serial killer was behind the crimes. Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer told ABC News, “Four bodies found in the same location pretty much speaks for itself. It’s more than a coincidence. We could have a serial killer.”
More victims were discovered in spring 2011, at which point the police offered a $25,000 reward for information that could lead to the arrest of the person responsible for the murders.
Police didn’t link Shannan’s death to the other murders.
This is all a little complicated, so let’s start at the beginning: On May 1, 2010, Shannan—who was working as an escort—went to the home of Joseph Brewer, a financial adviser who had responded to her ad on Craigslist. Police records show that Shannan called 911 from her phone at 4:51 a.m. but never gave her location (apparently, she said, “They’re trying to kill me.”). According to an extensive article from New York Magazine, Shannan’s driver, Michael Pak, saw her screaming and running from the house and she then appears to have knocked on a 75-year-old neighbor’s door asking for help. But Shannan wouldn’t let him call the police, and then she ran away and was never seen again.
Brewer and Pak were cleared of any suspicion, and on December 13, 2011, Shannan’s body was found in a marsh. Police initially claimed she had accidentally drowned after falling in. Seems like a pretty big coincidence given what was happening to other women in her line of work at the time, but Suffolk County Police Chief Stuart Cameron told People, “I understand that’s very difficult to believe, it seems very counterintuitive. But again, if you knew all the facts, you would believe it as I do.”
Yeaaah...well, according to Lost Girls, an independent autopsy contradicted the police’s theory, confirming that Shannan’s injuries “were consistent with homicidal strangulation.” Awful.
Mari was never able to solve Shannan’s case.
Before Shannan’s body was found, Mari was determined to find the truth, telling NY Mag, “My case linked them all together. Without Shannan, there’d never be a case.” She and the mothers of the other victims banded together, comparing notes and doing their own detective work when the police were slow to come up with answers.
In 2016, Mari was still trying to understand what had happened to her daughter, telling People, “It is not easy. I have to do what I need to do for Shannan and for the rest of the family. Nothing will bring any of us peace because none of it will ever bring her back.”
The Long Island Killer still hasn’t been found.
But there have been some leads. In December 2016, a professional escort indicated that former Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke could have been associated with the murders (he was sentenced to 46 months in federal prison for an unrelated charge in 2016). And back in September 2017, a Long Island carpenter named John Bittrolff was a suspect (he had already been convicted and sentenced for murdering two women in the ’90s).
Mari also suspected a Long Island resident named Dr. Peter Hackett, from whom she had received several strange phone calls. “Dr. Hackett told Mari Gilbert that he ran a home for wayward girls and that Shannan was in his care,” the Gilbert family’s attorney, John Ray, told Vice. “Why would anyone do something like that?” Mari filed a wrongful death claim against Hackett in 2012, which was largely dismissed.
What we do know? The killer is almost definitely a man.
In 2011, the New York Times published a profile of the killer, writing, “He is most likely a white male in his mid-20s to mid-40s. He is married or has a girlfriend. He is well educated and well spoken. He is financially secure, has a job, and owns an expensive car or truck. He may have sought treatment at a hospital for poison ivy infection. As part of his job or interests, he has access to, or a stockpile of, burlap sacks.”
Former FBI profiler Jim Clemente also found a pattern in the summertime disappearances, telling the New York Times, “There may be a seasonal nature to his connection to the area or to his fantasy and ritual. It may be the time his wife or kids or parents are away for the summer. There are many possibilities.”
Disturbingly, no one has been apprehended for the murders to this day.
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