Now that we're a couple weeks into the era of self-isolation, you may have noticed that your quarantine viewing habits fall into two categories: Some nights, you just want familiar comfort TV (could Friends have picked a worse time to leave Netflix?!), and other nights, maybe you want something a little darker. If that's the case, Netflix's gripping new true crime movie Lost Girls may just fit the bill.
The scripted film chronicles the true story of the disappearance of Shannan Gilbert, a 24-year-old sex worker in upstate New York, and her mother Mari Gilbert's relentless search for justice. Faced with apathy from the local police department, Mari sets out to piece together Shannan's final hours and uncovers a series of unsolved murders of sex workers in Long Island and the surrounding area. Lost Girls is based on Robert Kolker's book of the same name, and while the film stays relatively close to the truth, the real story of the Gilbert family is, if anything, even more extraordinary and tragic than what's depicted on-screen.
Below, a timeline of the true events behind Lost Girls and the still-unsolved mystery of the Long Island serial killer.
May 1, 2010
At 4:51 a.m., 911 operators received a frantic call from Shannan, who was visiting a client in Oak Beach, Long Island—an upscale gated community. Shannan was screaming, "They're trying to kill me," according to PIX 11, as dispatchers tried to determine her location. A neighbor reported seeing her running away from the client's home toward a swampy area, but by the time police arrived shortly after 6 a.m., Shannan had disappeared. She was never seen alive again.
The man Shannan had visited prior to her disappearance was Joseph Brewer, a first-time client. According to Rolling Stone, she took the date with Brewer to pay for a birthday gift for Mari, who had reportedly tried to talk her out of working that night. Brewer stated in a deposition that Shannan became "inexplicably unhinged" during the evening, and that he had enlisted her driver, Michael Pak, to come and pick her up. After placing the 911 call, per Rolling Stone, she reportedly fled from both Brewer and Pak, which is when the neighbors saw her and alerted the police.
Richard Dormer, then the Suffolk County police commissioner, told Vice that after running from Brewer's house, Shannan rang the doorbell of an elderly man, Gus Coletti, who called the police. She later knocked on the door of another neighbor, Barbara Brennan, who also called the police.
May 3, 2010
Mari received a phone call from Dr. Peter Hackett, a former surgeon who lived close to Brewer in Oak Beach. According to Mari, Hackett told her, "I run a home for wayward girls." Hackett denied making the calls to Mari, so when phone records proved that he had, he later admitted to the calls, but denied having ever met Shannan.
"Dr. Hackett told Mari Gilbert that he ran a home for wayward girls, and that Shannan was in his care," Gilbert family attorney John Ray told Vice. "Why would anyone do something like that?"
December 11, 2010
As police searched for Shannan, they discovered the remains of a different woman: Melissa Barthelemy, a sex worker who had disappeared years earlier in 2007.
December 13, 2010
Two days later, according to NBC New York, police discovered the remains of three other missing women: Megan Waterman, Amber Lynn Costello, and Maureen Brainard-Barnes. In addition to their proximity—the four bodies were all found within a quarter mile of each other—the victims were also all in their 20s and all sex workers.
Four months after the discovery of the first set of bodies, police officers discovered the partially dismembered remains of Jessica Taylor, also a sex worker, in addition to two unidentified women, an unidentified Asian man, and an unidentified female toddler.
All the bodies were found within the same seven-mile range in Gilgo Beach, an undeveloped coastal park along Long Island's south shore. At the time, police believed that the deaths were the work of a serial killer, but did not believe that Shannan's death was related. The still-unidentified killer came to be known as the Long Island serial killer.
December 13, 2011
Exactly one year from the discovery of the first remains, police finally found Shannan's remains in a marshy area on Oak Beach, close to where her cellphone and other belongings had been found a week earlier.
"They say she's at rest now, but she's not," Mari reportedly said at her daughter's funeral. "She'll never be at rest until I complete the fight and give her justice."
May 1, 2012
Two years to the day after her disappearance, Shannan's cause of death was officially classified as "undetermined," much to the frustration of her family, particularly Mari.
"I'm more frustrated and angrier than ever," Mari told Newsday after learning the news. The police department stated that homicide detectives would continue to investigate Shannan's death.
"Upon information and belief, at all times Defendant Hackett held himself out to the general public, and in particular to Shannan Gilbert and Mari Gilbert, as the owner/operator of a home for wayward females," the lawsuit said, per Oxygen.com.
February 12, 2016
Following the "undetermined" ruling, the Gilberts hired forensic pathologist Michael Baden to conduct an independent examination. In a press conference in February of 2016, the family's attorney, John Ray, stated that a report noted there was no indication Shannan had died by drowning, as police had reportedly suspected. Per NBC New York, Baden found that Gilbert had suffered injuries "consistent with homicidal strangulation." Ray called on the police department to "wise up" and reinvestigate Shannan's case.
July 23, 2016
Mari Gilbert's body was found inside her youngest daughter Sarra's apartment in Ellenville, New York. The New York Post reported that police were called to the apartment by another sister, Sherre Gilbert, who was requesting a welfare check on her mother. Inside, the police found Mari dead, and Sarra covered in blood.
It was soon established that Sarra had stabbed her mother to death with a kitchen knife, during what was described as a psychotic episode. She was charged with second-degree murder and fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon.
The Gilbert family's attorney, Ray, stated that Sarra had been hearing voices prior to the murder and that she had stopped taking her prescribed medications for schizophrenia. "This was a worsening situation," Ray explained. "It grew steadily more acute in the last year, that she had this schizophrenic mental state. ... She was on medications, and so often the case with mentally disturbed people, they don’t take their meds. And she didn’t take her meds, and you can see the consequences of it." He also noted that he believed Shannan's disappearance and murder had had an "adverse effect" on Sarra's mental state.
August 3, 2017
Sarra was convicted of Mari's murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison, which is the maximum allowed by law in the state of New York. According to the Daily Freeman, Judge Donald Williams said it was clear that the murder was “not only intentional ... but premeditated and planned.”
January 16, 2020
Suffolk County police released a "significant piece" of new evidence relating to the unsolved Gilgo Beach murders. Per ABC News, Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart revealed a photograph of a black leather belt embossed either with the letters WH or the letters HM—depending on which way the belt is held. Hart stated without elaborating that the department believed that the belt had been handled by the murder suspect. The belt is not a newly discovered piece of evidence, but was being released to the public for the first time.
Hart also reiterated that Shannan's death is not believed to be linked to the other deaths, because she "doesn't match the pattern of the Gilgo Beach homicides." She urged the public to come forward with any information relating to the murders or the belt, and when asked why she was releasing the image now after so long, she noted vaguely that "now is the time to release this information."
The Suffolk County Police Department also set up the website gilgonews.com to share updates on the case and collect tips from the public. "We remain steadfast in our commitment to deliver justice," Hart said.
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