Netflix's 'The Lost Girls' examines the unsolved case of the Long Island Serial Killer

By Christine Pelisek
March 13, 2020 01:49 PM
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It has been almost 10 years since the bodies of four women were found buried in the same marshy, desolate area on Gilgo Beach in Long Island, New York.

The four women, Melissa Barthelemy, Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Amber Costello and Megan Waterman, all of whom were sex workers, were found within about 500 feet of each other, strangled and wrapped in burlap in Dec. 2010.

Their remains were uncovered accidentally as police searched for a missing 24-year-old sex worker named Shannan Gilbert.

Then, over the next four months, six more sets of remains were found in the Gilgo Beach area, including the remains of a toddler and an Asian male, suggesting it might be a dumping ground for a serial killer or killers.

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Top left: Maureen Brainard-Barnes; Melissa Barthelemy; Megan Waterman; Amber Costello
| Credit: Barthelemy family; Suffolk County Police Department

To this day, the case remains unsolved — and a killer or killers remain at large.

The case is the focus of a Netflix movie, The Lost Girls, based on Robert Kolker’s 2013 nonfiction bestselling book, which began streaming today. (A clip is shown above.)

Liz Garbus, who directed the movie, says she hopes it will draw more attention to the case.

“I think if there’s public pressure and there’s a will, these cases are solvable,” she tells PEOPLE. “I know there’ve been a lot of mistakes made along the way and probably missed opportunities, but I have to believe that it’s solvable.”

“This is a case where there’s an opportunity for you to kind of get involved and help kind of keep the case alive,” she says.

Here are six things to know about the case.

1. 10 Bodies: Who Were They?

Maureen Brainard-Barnes, 25, was the first known victim. She disappeared in 2007 from New York City after checking out from a motel.

Melissa Barthelemy, 24, was last seen walking away from her Bronx apartment, in July 2009.

Megan Waterman, 22, disappeared from a hotel in Hauppauge after she placed an escort ad on Craigslist in June 2010.

Amber Costello, 27, negotiated a $1,500 date with her alleged killer before she walked out of her Long Island home in Sept. 2010.

Six more sets of remains were discovered in the early part of 2011. A toddler was among the dead, as was an unidentified Asian man wearing women’s clothes, who was brutally beaten.

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remains of an Asian male were discovered along Ocean Parkway
| Credit: Suffolk County Police Department

2. Shannan Gilbert Fled Man’s House: ‘They’re Trying to Kill Me!’

Shannan, an online sex worker, vanished without a trace on May 1, 2010, after visiting a client she met on Craigslist in the gated community of Oak Beach in Long Island.

Shannan fled her client’s house. Before she did, she called 911 and told dispatchers, “They’re trying to kill me!”

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Shannan Gilbert
| Credit: Courtesy Ray Mitev Associates

Shannan’s body was discovered on Dec. 13, 2011, near the remains of the four sex workers. Though it was the search for Shannan’s body that led to the discovery of the others, police don’t believe her case is linked and suspect she got lost in the inhospitable marshland.

Over the years, Shannan’s family has tried to get a transcript of her 911 call with no success.

3. Families Fight for Answers

Until her tragic death in 2016, Shannan’s mother Mari never stopped fighting for answers — something true of other relatives of victims.

In an interview with PEOPLE, Mari said she would never stop until she got justice. “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.”

Garbus, who met Mari before her death, described her as “serious and unstoppable.”

“I mean what she was able to pull off in a day, being able to work two jobs, get from upstate New York to Long Island to bother police,” she said. “She was not going to let it go.”

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Mari Gilbert sitting next to her attorney John Ray
| Credit: AP

4. Killer’s Taunting Phone Calls

It seems the closest that anyone has gotten to catching the Long Island Serial Killer may be a phone call. Sara Karnes, a friend of Brainard-Barnes, got a strange call a few days after her friend vanished.

“[The man] said she was at a whorehouse in Queens,” Karnes told PEOPLE. “And he described her to a T to me.”

Karnes was not the only person to receive a call from the alleged killer. Barthelemy’s sister, Amanda, had her own tormenting series of calls. “He was very calm,” Melissa’s mom, Lynn, told PEOPLE. “The last call he said he had killed her.”

5. Is Man Who Murdered 2 Sex Workers a Serial Killer?

Authorities have never arrested or charged anyone with the Long Island murders. However, in 2017, a Suffolk County prosecutor suggested that Manorville carpenter John Bittrolff, who was sentenced to prison for murdering two sex workers, may be responsible for one or more of the unsolved deaths.

“There are remains of the victims at Gilgo that may be attributed to the handiwork of Mr. Bittrolff, and that investigation is continuing,” Robert Biancavilla, a prosecutor with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, told the Associated Press.

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John Bittrolff
| Credit: Newsday/James Carbone/Pool/AP

In a statement to PEOPLE, the DA’s office declined to “expand” on Biancavilla’s comments to the AP, citing the active homicide investigation.

6. Does Belt Have Killer’s Initials?

Suffolk County police released a photograph of a black leather belt found at one of the crime scenes.

The black belt is imprinted with the letters “WH” or “HM” — which are possibly initials of the killer. In January, Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said the belt was “handled by the suspect and didn’t belong to any of the victims.”

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The black belt is imprinted with the letters “WH” or “HM”
| Credit: Suffolk Police Department

Hart said the belt was found “at the initial stage of the investigation,” but she did not reveal the location.

Garbus says the police held the press conference on the same day the movie trailer was released.

“Why did it take nine years? I don’t know,” says Garbus. “But I’m glad that they’re putting new things out there and I hope they all continue to do so, so the families can get some resolution.”

The Lost Girls began streaming Friday.