The beginning of the story was strangely familiar, like the opening scene in a shopworn police procedural: A woman runs screaming down a street in Oak Beach, a secluded gated community on Long Island’s South Shore, only to vanish, it seems, into thin air. It was almost dawn on May 1, 2010. Hours earlier, Shannan Gilbert traveled from New Jersey to see a man who had hired her as an escort from a Craigslist ad. By the time the police arrived, she was gone. They talked to the neighbors, the john and her driver and came up with nothing. A few days later, they ordered a flyover of the area and, again, saw no sign of her. Then they essentially threw up their hands. She went into the ocean, they decided, either hysterical or on drugs.

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None of this made the news, not at first. A missing sex worker rarely does. Not even when another woman advertising on Craigslist, Megan Waterman, was reported missing a month later.

As spring turned to summer, each of those missing-persons cases grew cold. No one else was brought in for questioning, and no more searches were conducted. But by November, the bramble bordering the beaches on the South Shore was less thick, and so the police ordered a detective with a cadaver-sniffing dog, as part of the dog’s regular training exercises, to explore the area near where Gilbert disappeared: up and down the shoulder of Ocean Parkway, the main artery of the South Shore. On Dec. 11, the detective and the dog found something at Gilgo Beach: a skeleton bound in burlap. Two days later, the police found three more — four skeletons in all, secured with burlap and positioned just a tenth of a mile away from one another, in the bramble off the side of a deserted stretch of seaside highway.

The police were shocked. Who were these women? After a series of DNA tests, they learned that two had been missing for years: Maureen Brainard-Barnes, last heard from at Penn Station in 2007, and Melissa Barthelemy, who vanished from the Bronx in 2009. Their families had begged the police to look for them. The third was Waterman, whom, a lead investigator told me recently, they never imagined they would find there. The fourth, Amber Costello, disappeared in September 2010, a few months after Gilbert and Waterman; she was last seen darting out of her house in nearby Babylon, a short drive from Gilgo Beach, to meet a man in his car. All these women fit a certain profile. They were petite and in their 20s and had come to New York to make money as escorts on Craigslist.


The stretch of Gilgo Beach where the authorities discovered Melissa Barthelemy’s body.Credit…Cait Oppermann for The New York Times

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