I was once told by a woman who calls herself a witch that I was a prostitute in a past life — or, rather, in her own words: a woman of ill repute. I’m not normally one to put stock in this kind of thing, but when she told me that, I didn’t have to engage in a lot of mental gymnastics for it to make a strange sort of sense.
The woman’s words came back to me when I found myself compelled to investigate the unsolved murders of sex workers whose remains were discovered lined up along a lonely beach-town road. There were times it did feel like a past life had hijacked my brain, convincing me to fall in with an internet crowd trying to solve the Long Island Serial Killer case.
These sleuths are stay-at-home moms, taxi drivers, psychics, people on bed rest, bankers, and even a former Las Vegas haunted-house employee — dedicated amateurs who’ve spent years scouring the internet, looking for anything the authorities might have missed, anything that could lead to the capture of a canny killer believed to have been operating in the shadows for 20 years.
Early on, I told myself I wouldn’t become a desktop detective. I rationalized the time and energy I began directing toward this mystery by classifying my interest as basic human curiosity —
I just wanted to know who these people, these keyboard Sherlocks, were. It seemed worth looking into, journalistically — a varied group of Americans attaching themselves to a notorious serial-murder case.
And yet here I am, one cold January day, walking the shoulder of Ocean Parkway on a desolate barrier island off Long Island’s southern shore. I’m following a video map I found on YouTube, one that traces the steps of the killer, who used this stretch of road as a secret graveyard. The map shows where the perpetrator is believed to have carried his victims’ bodies, wrapped in burlap sacks, from a car and dumped them in bramble, mere feet from the road’s edge.
No one knew a killer had been depositing bodies and body parts in the South Shore region of Long Island when Shannan Gilbert went missing in the predawn gloom of May 1, 2010.