- Netflix's Lost Girls stars Amy Ryan as Mari Gilbert, the real mom who urged Suffolk County police to search for her missing daughter Shannan Gilbert.
- Shannan's missing persons case led police to discover ten sets of remains, now attributed to the Long Island Serial Killer (or several killers).
- Mari Gilbert was murdered by one of her daughter, Sarra Gilbert, in July of 2016—five years after the events of Lost Girls.
Lost Girls, a new Netflix movie helmed by Emmy-winning documentary director Liz Garbus, tells the true story of the deaths of Shannan Gilbert and several victims of the Gilgo Beach murders. Based on Robert Kolker's book of the same name, the film is centered on Mari Gilbert, Shannan's outspoken mother, who worked alongside several other victims' families to press Long Island police into action. Mari Gilbert never stopped fighting for the truth about how her daughter—who was a sex worker—died, drawing attention to the lower priority authorities placed on solving crimes against sex workers, the investigation Kolker wrote about suggests.
"I was so moved by Mari's story," Garbus tells OprahMag.com. "These young women were cast aside on the road, barely even covered up, and were neglected to even be looked for for so long."
Sadly, the film's real-life heroine never got the justice she wanted for Shannan's death. As it notes at the end of Lost Girls, Mari Gilbert was killed by her daughter, Sarra Gilbert, in 2016.
Sarra Gilbert murdered her mother Mari at their home.
One of Mari's three surviving daughters, the then 27-year-old Sarra had been previously diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent time in and out of mental health facilities. Gilbert family attorney John Ray told PIX11 that in the months leading up to Mari's horrific death, Sarra had drowned her pet puppy and threatened to kill her 8-year-old son.
Warning, because this gets graphic: As Sarra Gilbert later testified in court, on July 26, 2016, she stabbed Mari Gilbert with a kitchen knife 227 times in Mari's Ellenville, NY apartment. Sarra also stripped off her mother's clothes and severely beat her head with a fire extinguisher. As she told the jury, Sarra believed Mari, "was evil. She deserved to die.”
Charged with second-degree murder, Sarra Gilbert pleaded not guilty, with Ray claiming she couldn't be held responsible due to her schizophrenia. "Sarra is, from all the evidence, clearly not responsible for what she’s done," Newsday quoted Ray saying in 2016. "She’s what we call criminally insane."
Oddly, despite working closely with Mari on Shannan's disappearance, Ray also claimed Sarra's belief that Mari was demonic was partly based in truth. "Mari was a lifetime practitioner of witchcraft and apparently of black magic," Ray said in the same Newsday report. “And her children were adversely affected by it, there is no question about it whatsoever." But Sarra's sister Stevie Smith disagreed regarding the motive, testifying that Sarra was jealous of her relationship with their mother and "I believe she would have killed me too."
Sarra Gilbert was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for the crime.
After a jury found Sarra Gilbert guilty, she was given the maximum sentence of 25 years to life in August 2017. Jurors didn't find Sarra and her attorney's claims and pleas for mercy compelling, with one unnamed juror telling the Daily Freeman, "We feel that she has mental illness but she was also aware of what she was doing." She remains in prison today.
Lost Girls director Liz Garbus met Mari Gilbert while developing the movie.
Garbus knows viewers may likely be floored by the news of Mari's death at the end of the film. "I wish that coda didn't have to exist," she says. "When I started the project, it was 2015. Mari was alive and kicking. I was able to meet with her, and talk with her."
But Garbus didn't get to see her again. "I'm so grateful for that," Garbus says of their meeting. "I didn't know it would be only once."
Amy Ryan learned of Mari Gilbert's death after she read the Lost Girls script.
Ryan tells OprahMag.com that she'd been familiar with the story of the Long Island Serial killer, as a native New Yorker who spent time at nearby Jones Beach growing up.
But Ryan found out what ultimately happened to Mari after she'd fallen in love with the Netflix film's screenplay, when a Google rabbit-hole informed her of the woman's awful fate. "After I read the scripts, I Googled it and came across, I guess it was a Wikipedia page," Ryan says. "Which told me the second chapter of Mari's story."
The Office alum says she partly based her portrayal on Liz's "very helpful" accounts of her conversations with Mari, videos of Mari, and Kolker's book. "I knew I wasn't going to look, walk, and sound exactly like Mari, but there was an essence, or a gesture that I was hoping to pick up," Ryan adds. "At a certain point you just have to run with it."
Sarra Gilbert's mental health struggles are foreshadowed in Lost Girls.
The film's events begin six years ahead of Mari's murder, and Sarra is played as an adolescent by actress Oona Laurence. Several references are made to Sarra's mood stabilizer prescriptions throughout the film, and Garbus says that was tweaked retroactively after Mari died.
"The major symptoms of schizophrenia hit later," Garbus explains. "But, in retrospect, people thought there were signs. So we did go back and sort of apply some of that hindsight to the storytelling."
Garbus hopes that Lost Girls will inspire in others the same unrelenting dedication to finding the truth about how Shannan Gilbert—and the rest of the women found near Gilgo Beach—really died. "Mari Gilbert knew that that kind of attention and passion is what will keep this case alive," Garbus says. "And lead to some breakthrough, God willing."
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