Shannan Gilbert not a victim of LI serial killer? Remains pose questions, police say

Crime Scene investigators use metal detectors to search a marsh for the remains of Shannan Gilbert on Monday, Dec. 12, 2011 in Oak Beach, New York. Gilbert was last seen in 2010 running hysterically from a client's home in Oak Beach, where 10 slain victims were found during a search for her remains. This week, police found her personal effects in the marshland near Oak Beach.
Pool,AP Photo/James Carbone
Investigators use metal detectors to search a marsh for the remains of Shannan Gilbert  on Dec. 12, 2011 in Oak Beach, N.Y.
Crime scene investigators use metal detectors to search a marsh for the remains of Shannan Gilbert on Monday, Dec. 12, 2011, in Oak Beach, New York.
Pool, AP Photo/James Carbone

(CBS) Shannan Gilbert was a 23-year-old down on her luck. She dreamed of becoming a singer, but was working as an escort, supporting herself by offering sexual services online. She might have remained unnoticed in that dark, seedy life had she not gone missing in Long Island, New York in May 2010.

It was when police were searching for Shannan last December that they stumbled instead on the bodies of four other women, bodies reportedly wrapped in burlap and dismembered. More searches led to more remains, 10 in all. Police didn't find Shannan Gilbert, but they did uncover a terrible fact: there was at least one serial killer at work on Long Island, targeting sex workers.

I never met Shannan Gilbert, but I feel as if I know her. I have spent the past six months talking to her sisters, talking to eyewitnesses to her last panicked run from a beachfront gated community, talking to investigators. What happened to her? I wasn't sure we'd ever know for sure. And then this week, a break in the case. A big one. Sadly for Ms. Gilbert's family, it appears that she never left the beach where she was last seen in the early morning hours of May 4, 2010. On Tuesday, investigators searching the marshy land near the beach found remains that appear to be Gilbert. Gilbert had a titanium plate in her jaw and sources in the investigation say such a plate was found. But even if the skeletal remains belong to Ms. Gilbert, the mystery is far from solved.

Earlier this week, in an exclusive one-on-one interview that I did with Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer, he shot down the idea that Shannan Gilbert is a victim of a serial killer. In fact, he doesn't even believe she was murdered. Instead, he told me that he believed that she likely drowned in the marshy, overgrown area where she was found.

Watch an excerpt of Moriarty's interview with Commissioner Dormer

She's not a victim of the serial killer, he argues, because her case differs greatly from that of the other victims. Unlike the first four women found, Gilbert's remains, if, in fact, they are hers, were not found wrapped, nor did it appear that her body had been dismembered.

He also points to the fact that it is unlikely that the serial killer would target a woman who had a driver, as Gilbert did. That would mean a possible eyewitness. Dormer makes both a compelling and credible argument. But it may be too early for anyone to say that Gilbert's death was an accident. An autopsy has not yet been completed. Investigators need to determine, as well as they can, how she died before they dismiss the idea that she was murdered.

Shannan Gilbert's family is outraged that police appear to dismiss her death as an unfortunate accident. They point to the fact that Gilbert made a 23-minute call to 911 before she ran out of a client's house. Reportedly, she told the operator that "they are trying to kill me," although she apparently never identified the "they." What's more, say family members, Gilbert's jeans, shoes and purse were found a quarter mile from her remains. They believe that someone dumped Gilbert's possessions before her body was left.

So, as is often the case, this latest discovery only leads to more questions. And the most important question of all: who killed the 10 people, is yet to be answered. At this time, it doesn't appear that authorities are much closer to the truth. On Wednesday, Commissioner Dormer told me confidently that a lone killer was responsible for all the death. The very next day, the County Prosecutor contradicted him and said that there is more than one killer out there. Doesn't give you much confidence that any arrests will be made any time soon. 

Watch a preview of 48 Hours Mystery: The Long Island Serial Killer, to air Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011, 10 p.m.ET/PT

Complete coverage of the Long Island serial killer case on Crimesider

  • Erin Moriarty

    Correspondent, "48 Hours"