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In one of her final interviews before she was also killed, Mari Gilbert spoke to PEOPLE of still pursuing justice for her 24-year-old daughter Shannan Gilbert — whose death six years ago helped uncover the Long Island Serial Killer.
“It is not easy,” said Mari, whose interview is featured in this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday. “I have to do what I need to do for Shannan and for the rest of the family. Nothing will bring any of us peace because none of it will ever bring her back.”
In a bizarre and tragic twist, Mari was killed in July and her younger daughter, Sarra, was accused of fatally stabbing her.
Up until her death, she never stopped fighting for Shannan. Mari told PEOPLE, “I hope it will bring awareness to any police department anywhere that regardless of who you are and what you do for a living that you are not judged, and that all cases are handled equally.”
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Mari’s nightmare began when Shannan, an online escort, vanished without a trace on May 1, 2010, after visiting a client she met on Craigslist in the gated community of Oak Beach on Long Island, New York.
Adding to the mystery, before she fled her client’s house, Shannan called 911 and told dispatchers, “They’re trying to kill me!”
Mari spoke to her daughter the day before she disappeared. Shannan was making plans to visit her mom in Ellenville, New York to celebrate Mother’s Day and Mari’s birthday. Shannan said she needed to make money so she could buy her mother a gift.
“I said, ‘Shannan stay home,’ ” Mari told PEOPLE in that last interview. “She said, ‘I have to go out. I want to make money.’ I said her presence is my present. She said, ‘Don’t worry Mom I will be okay.’ I was like, ‘I love you. Bye.’ And that was it. It was our last conversation.”
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Shannan’s body was discovered on Dec. 13, 2011, near the remains of four other women, all online escorts. The four other bodies were wrapped in burlap and placed about 500 feet from one another in Gilgo Beach, leading police to believe that a serial killer, later dubbed the Long Island Serial Killer, was afoot.
Though it was the search for Shannan’s body that led to the others, police didn’t believe her case was linked and suspected she got lost in the inhospitable marshland.
“I understand that’s very difficult to believe, it seems very counter-intuitive,” Suffolk County Police Chief Stuart Cameron tells PEOPLE. “But again if you knew all the facts you would believe it as I do.”
In May 2012, the Suffolk County medical examiner ruled Shannan’s manner of death “undetermined.”
However, Mari insisted that her daughter was murdered, and she hired attorney John Ray to fight for access to the 911 tape for clues to what happened to her daughter that fateful night.
The family also asked a forensic pathologist to conduct an independent autopsy on Shannan’s remains, which found that her death was consistent with homicidal strangulation because a small bone in her throat was missing, possibly indicating it was fractured when she was murdered.
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Before she died, Mari said she was encouraged that the FBI had joined the search for her killer.
“I am hopeful for the fact that they have more resources to pursue other avenues that Suffolk County police either didn’t have the money or the manpower to do,” she said.
In her final interview, Mari, who worked at a Walmart in Ellenville, New York, also spoke about how the pursuit of justice for her daughter had taken a toll.
“Everywhere I go, people recognize me at my job,” she told PEOPLE. “I have random strangers come up to me and know who I am. You just have to act like you are okay and happy and everything is fine. It is like I am living two different lives. Nothing is the same. I lost my soul.”
On July 23, Gilbert was found fatally stabbed in the living room of 27-year-old Sarra’s apartment in Ellenville. Ray tells PEOPLE that Gilbert’s youngest daughter suffers from schizophrenia. “She had been hearing a variety of voices and hallucinating all related to Shannan,” Ray said. “Her mom went to help her, and she is dead.”
Ray says he and Gilbert’s two remaining daughters plan to continue to fight for answers for Shannan — and her mother.
“She was broken down and depressed and she was a poor poverty-stricken person,” Ray says of Mari. “She was a single mom trying to raise kids and grandkids. She did what any mother would try to do for her kids.
“I just can’t not do it. That is what Mari would have wanted. She pursued this case relentlessly.”