Melissa Cann last saw her sister Maureen Brainard-Barnes alive in July 2007 when her sibling took the train from Connecticut into Manhattan and vanished.
“It’s been about 15 years since she went missing,” Cann, 37, told The Post. “It is crazy because if feels like it was yesterday. I was only 22.”
Her 25-year-old sister’s disappearance consumed most of Cann’s own young adulthood. Armed with Maureen’s emails, she made frequent trips to New York City trying to retrace her steps, pushed law enforcement to exhaust every resource and lost many nights of sleep.
“It took up a lot of my time, but I had to come to the realization that I wasn’t going to be the one to find her. I had to sit and wait and that was horrible,” Cann said.
In December 2010, Brainard-Barnes’ body was found on a stretch near Gilgo Beach, LI, along with three other women: Megan Waterman, 22, Melissa Barthelemy, 24, and Amber Lynn Costello, 27. They were all sex workers of petite stature, advertising their services on Craigslist. And their bodies were wrapped in burlap.
Since then, 11 bodies in all have been unearthed in the area. The grisly murders, believed to be the work of a serial killer or killers, have captivated the public, stumped local police and frustrated victims’ family members still waiting for an arrest.
Now Cann, a soft-spoken, married mother of five communicates with detectives weekly — or more often — and still clings to the idea that her sister’s killer will be brought to justice.
“I always feel hopeful. Without hope, what do you have?” she said.
Law enforcement doubles down
Renewing her sense of optimism are two recent key personnel changes in Suffolk County — new district attorney Ray Tierney and police commissioner Rodney Harrison.
Cann said the pieces in place are now “solid.”
Earlier this month, Harrison held a press conference at the site of the gruesome dumping ground, vowing to solve the case.
“We will not rest until we bring those accountable to justice,” said Harrison, the former NYPD chief of department.
“There’s a commitment, a relentless pursuit to identify the individuals and bring them to justice. That’s for the family members to hear, to let them know that we will not rest, and we will make sure we do everything we have to do to hold them accountable.”
He added that there were “some great leads that are putting us in a great place to solve this case. We’re getting there but still some work needs to be done to get us across the finish line.”
Lorraine Ela, the mother of victim Megan Waterman, told The Post, she was “kind of skeptical” prior to watching Harrison’s press conference.
“I am tired of hearing the same crap come out of everyone’s mouth,” she said in an e-mail. “[But] I was very pleased with the words from Mr. Harrison. He seems to care for the victims. I believe Mr. Harrison will work this case with dignity.”
911 call could provide clues
Police initially found the remains of the first four women while searching for Jersey City resident Shannan Gilbert, a 24-year-old Craiglist escort who, after visiting a John in Oak Beach, made a frantic 23-minute call to 911 insisting someone was trying to kill her. “There’s someone after me … they’re trying to kill me,” she reportedly told the 911 operator. She was never seen alive again.
In December 2011, police located her remains in a nearby marsh. The official cause of her death is “undetermined,” and authorities have theorized she drowned or died of a drug overdose. But a 2016 independent autopsy said her death was “consistent with homicidal strangulation.”
Harrison also said he would release the 911 call to the public if it didn’t interfere with the police investigation.
Gilbert’s family attorney John Ray, who has heard the 911 tapes but is under a court order to not speak about the specific content, told The Post they would “shock the public.” He added we would learn the police’s account of Shannan’s death is “willfully false.” Law enforcement have previously said that two male voices can be heard in the background, said to be Gilbert’s driver and the man who hired her. (Both have been cleared by cops.)
Gilbert’s sister Sherre Gilbert has not heard them herself. Her mother, Mari, who was killed in 2016 by her schizophrenic daughter, Sarra, was given a transcript years ago. Sherre said she knows it would be “difficult to hear my sister’s last words. But anything to help her case.”
She hoped that in releasing the tapes, it would show her sister’s death was no accident and that she was frightened for her life.
And maybe it will provide a useful lead. “We want to know if the public can identify any other voices on the tapes,” Sherre added.
Other twisted phone calls gave investigators clues to the killer’s identity. Just days after Barthelemy’s disappearance on July 10, 2009, a man used her cellphone to call her little sister Amanda. In all, he made a handful of taunting calls, saying Barthelemy, who was living in the Bronx at the time, was a “whore.”
Cops traced some of the calls to Midtown Manhattan and Massapequa, which is 10 miles from Gilgo Beach.
Theories but no arrests
Over the years, the case has been saddled with scandals and sideshows that have sullied the investigation — and uncovered corruption among local officials.
In 2015, then-Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke was busted for the 2012 assault of a handcuffed suspect who swiped a bag of sex toys and porn from Burke’s trunk. The sordid incident was covered up by then District Attorney Thomas Spota, who was later sentenced to five years in the conspiracy. It was alleged that Burke stonewalled the FBI from getting involved in the investigation because they knew of his assault.
In that same year, the FBI officially joined the investigation, and in 2018, former FBI agent Geraldine Hart took over as commissioner. Using a database that collects DNA from genomics-services companies like 23andMe, they were able to identify Jane Doe 6 as Valerie Mack, a 24-year-old escort and mother of one.
Last year, the department released images of a black belt tied to one of the victims and believed to have been handled by a suspect. It was embossed with the initials “WH” or “HM.” They also launched GilgoNews.com to collect tips and provide updates.
The grim mystery has been fodder for countless documentaries, crime specials and even Netflix’s 2020 movie “Lost Girls,” based on a 2013 book by Robert Kolker delving into the lives of the victims. It’s also ignited the imagination of true-crime sleuths and produced a number of unfounded theories.
Some have speculated that Burke was somehow involved in the killings. Others have floated Dr. Peter Hackett, a former Oak Beach resident who called Gilbert’s mother and allegedly took care of her that night. (Police have cleared him, but the Gilberts filed a wrongful death suit against him in 2012. Hackett has denied involvement and the suit was tossed in 2018.)
Cann said she doesn’t buy any of the theories.
“Hey, it’s Burke, it’s Hackett. It’s none of them. Because if it was, one of them would have been arrested by now. I know for a fact these detectives want to solve this case,” she said, adding the speculation harms the investigation and stops the public from coming forward with tips because they think law enforcement has their guy.
“I want people to say if they saw my sister in New York City. I want them to put in a tip. Don’t think about the names that have been floated. There hasn’t been a suspect yet.”
Sherre echoed those sentiments: “We want to keep the public involved and get justice. They all deserve justice, not just Shannan.”
And as more time goes by since her loved one’s disappearance, Ela confronts another tough calendar milestone later this month.
“Megan’s birthday is January 18, and she would have been 34,” Ela wrote. “But [she’s] forever 22.”