After a yearlong search, police on New York's Long Island said Tuesday they believe they have discovered the skeletal remains of a New Jersey prostitute whose disappearance sparked an investigation into a possible serial killing spree.
Suffolk County Police Commissioner Police Commissioner Richard Dormer said searchers found the bones at around 9:15 a.m. in a dense wetland thicket, about a half mile from where 24-year-old Shannan Gilbert disappeared after meeting a client for an early-morning sexual encounter.
Dormer said the medical examiner's office would confirm whether the remains were Gilbert's, but the commissioner left little doubt that officers had found their intended target.
"It's certainly a sad day for the Gilbert family," he said. "And our condolences to that family on the death of their daughter."
Later, Gilbert's mother called it a "sad, but happy moment," and said she still had doubts about whether the search was really over.
"Until I hear positive confirmation that it's my daughter, I'm not going to believe it. Not until I know for sure," said Mari Gilbert, speaking to reporters not far from where the remains were discovered. The New York City medical examiner's office, which helped with some of the prior identification of victims, had members of its forensic anthropology unit at the crime scene to assist.
The remnants were found by homicide detectives about a quarter mile from where authorities discovered Gilbert's pants, shoes, pocketbook with ID and other personal items last week, also in the thicket. On Tuesday, they were searching on an aluminum amphibious vehicle equipped with pontoons that can maneuver over land and water when they came upon the remains.
Police said they were searching for the Jersey City, N.J., woman last December when they discovered the first of what would become 10 homicide victims. They were strewn along several miles of thicket and bramble along a parkway leading to Jones Beach. The body believed to be Gilbert's was several miles east from where the other 10 were located on the remote barrier island south of Long Island.
While police believe a lone serial killer is responsible for the deaths of the 10, Dormer reiterated Tuesday that police think Gilbert likely drowned accidentally after fleeing the client's home for an unclear reason. Dormer said the location of the skeleton suggests that Gilbert may have been trying to run through the wetlands to a nearby causeway because it was illuminated by street lights.
She was last seen shortly after 5 a.m. on May 1, 2010. Dormer suggested that she had become hopelessly entangled in the brush, which he called a "tough, desolate, tangled mess."
"The terrain would have made it impossible" for her to get through to the road, Dormer said. "Our people who were in there over the last few days had to cut through that brush and bramble area, before she was located."
Mari Gilbert said she doesn't yet believe the police theory that her daughter died accidentally.
"I think when the autopsy is performed, we'll know more," she said.
Relatives of some of the other people whose bodies were found along a nearby beach highway had already been planning a vigil Tuesday to mark the anniversary of when their loves ones' remains were discovered. An officer and cadaver dog happened upon one body on Dec. 11, 2010. Two days later, three more bodies were found. By April, after investigators widened their search area to about 15 miles, a total of 10 sets of remains were uncovered.
Melissa Cann, whose sister Maureen Brainerd-Barnes was among the first four victims found, and Lorraine Ela, the mother of victim Megan Waterman, were standing nearby when Dormer made his announcement.
Cann burst into tears and hugged Ela as cameras chronicled their grief.
Authorities at first believed several suspects could have left the remains along the highway, but Dormer said recently that detectives now suspect one serial killer is likely responsible for all 10 deaths because the victims all had some connection to the sex trade.
The victims included eight women, a man and a toddler. Police believe the women were prostitutes and suspect the man was involved in the sex trade because he was found wearing women's clothing. The toddler is believed to be the child of one of the prostitutes. Only five of the 10 victims have been identified, and police have not commented on any possible suspects.
Cann, of New London, Conn., and Ela, of Portland, Maine, embraced Mari Gilbert during a brief news conference in Oak Beach, a gated community near where Gilbert had last been seen alive. Later, they released balloons and lit candles.
"We think it's important that we do as much as possible to keep the public aware of this case," Cann said. "There could be a clue out there."
Ela said Monday that she took a 14-hour bus trip from Maine to Long Island to attend the vigil. The families are holding a fundraiser later Tuesday at a Wantagh nightclub to help defray their travel expenses.
Before the commissioner left, Cann spoke with Dormer and thanked him for the police effort in the investigation. Dormer assured her that while the case involving Gilbert appeared to be coming to a conclusion, the homicide task force investigating the possible serial killer would continue its work.