Oak Beach is a small gated community that exists as its own little oasis. It's just a speck along the Ocean Parkway, a thin, stretched-out four-lane highway that travels along the southern expanse of New York's Long Island.
For many, this is a vacation getaway among many. New Yorkers often flee to Long Island in the summer to take a break from their fast-paced, busy lives. But for some, Oak Beach is home.
Gus Coletti lives here in Oak Beach, and he has for over thirty years. Gus is a former insurance fraud investigator, a man who made a living by locating inconsistencies - no matter how small or big. But now, at seventy-five years of age, Gus is retired and enjoying his retirement with a comfortable home here in Oak Beach.
Gus busies himself with hobbies these days, mainly taking care of the 35 pigeons he houses on his property. He also has a few parrots, but that's neither here nor there.
This morning, Gus is up pretty early. He has a car show to see in Rhinebeck, a nearly-three hour drive away. It's somewhere between four and five AM when Gus, who is in the bathroom shaving, hears the first sounds of trouble.
BANG. BANG. BANG.
He hears the sound of someone's fist banging against his front door. This would alarm anyone at anytime of the day or night, but this early in the morning means that it's nothing good.
Alarmed and slightly-panicked, Gus approaches his front door with trepidation. He undoubtedly peers through a window to see who stands on the other side of the door: it's a young woman, short and thin, wearing a light-colored tank top.
Gus Coletti lets her inside, and she immediately begins to plead with him.
"Help me, help me," she demands, her own voice replacing his panic with fear. Gus urgently wants to help this young woman, who can't be a day over twenty-five years old, so he guides her to a nearby chair and calls 9-1-1 from his landline telephone.
"They're going to kill me," she screams.
As Gus urges this young woman to tell him what's wrong, she just stares at him. Her panicked pleas cease, and she bolts for the still-open door when he tells her that he's calling for emergency services.
While the phone dials, Gus is now helpless. Within a moment, this alarmed young woman has entered his life - demanding help - and is now running away from it, as if she was being chased.
Gus Coletti finishes his call to 9-1-1, informing them of what's happened. It is then that he steps outside, onto his second-story porch that the young woman just descended. He sees a black SUV traveling down the road, stopping-and-going as if it were searching for someone.
This is when Gus sees the young woman again. Now she is ducked under his boat, hiding from the SUV in a crouched position in his driveway. The black SUV is coming closer, obviously searching for the young woman, and as it does, Gus gets a closer look at the person behind the wheel: it's an Asian man, who is scanning the neighborhood.
The driver of the SUV slows as he approaches Gus Coletti's house, and asks out an open window if he's seen a young woman who left a house party. Gus tells the man that he called 9-1-1, and the driver's response sends chills down his spine. "You shouldn't have done that," he says. "She's going to get in a lot of trouble."
The young woman runs off into the dark, down the gated neighborhood called the Fairway. She passes by houses that have their lights off, and heads towards the dark intersection of Sandy Drive.
Barbara Brennan lives here, and the front of her house is known for a lighted vigil she has kept for about a decade now: in remembrance for her husband, lost in the September 11th attacks. The young woman begins pounding on Barbara's door, but isn't greeted by any response.
Barbara places two phone calls: one to the police at approximately 5:22 AM, and an immediate followup to her neighbor, Tom Canning.
Tom Canning, a big guy and retired landscaper, gets dressed and heads over to Barbara's house immediately with his dog, a large hunting breed.
But by that time, the young woman is gone. She would never be seen alive again, but her dramatic actions that night would begin to peel back the layers of a mystery decades in the making: a decade that has since gone on to define the area of Gilgo Beach.
Welcome to the Unresolved Podcast. I am your host, Micheal Whelan, and this story is one for the ages: a modern-age Jack the Ripper tale that has left the entire Long Island area in shock.
Now, let's dive right into it: this is the story of how the Long Island Serial Killer was discovered.
Oak Beach, the setting of the story in the introduction, is just a section of the area known as Gilgo Beach. Connected to Jones Beach, the area makes up one of the long, thin islands on the southern tip of Long Island. Oak Beach is just the area closest to Oak Island, one of the many specks of land between Gilgo Beach and Long Island itself.
As I said, it's primarily a vacation spot for New Yorkers and other East Coasters during the summer. There are permanent residences, but by-and-large, it's an area that doesn't see a lot of traffic in the cold months of the year.
The area is known for its beautiful-looking beaches, but also for its haunted landscapes that truly come alive at night. The brambled bushes that cover the island give it a definitive look during the day, but hold unspeakable terrors during the night: terrors both imaginative and real. I really encourage you to look up pictures of the Gilgo Beach brush, if you haven't seen it already, just to get the picture in your mind of this unusual environment. It's a landscape that is equal parts dream and nightmare.
This entire strip of land is referred to as Jones Beach Island, which is itself technically a part of the Town of Babylon, New York. The land is leased to the residences there by the Town of Babylon, and is accessible by the Ocean Parkway, that four-lane road that runs through it. This strip of land is a part of Suffolk County, but is just a close as you can get to being on the outskirts as possible.
It is due to it being so far from the rest of Suffolk County that on the night in question, May 1st, 2010, it took police nearly an hour to get to Oak Beach. And they weren't just responding to Gus Coletti or Barbara Brennan's 9-1-1 calls; many more neighbors had been awoken by the screaming woman outside their house, who was pounding on doors and pleading for someone to help her.
Gus Coletti, that retiree that had been up early for a car show, waited at the gatehouse for over 45 minutes until the police showed up. But by then, the young woman, known as Shannan Gilbert, had disappeared forever.
Shannan Maria Gilbert was born on October 24th, 1986, in Ellenville, New York. She was the oldest of four sisters, and had a - for lack of a better term - tumultuous relationship with her mother, Mari Gilbert.
Shannan suffered some childhood abuse - both physical and emotional - and spent a fair amount of time in the foster care system from the age of seven.
As a teenager, Shannan began to dabble in drugs and alcohol, but maintained a pretty great grade point average. She had dreams of fame and fashion and becoming a singer/songwriter while also pursuing a career of being a writer. Her brains helped her graduate from New Paltz Central High School a year ahead-of-schedule, but the early graduation just gave Shannan a surge of independence.
Immediately following her high school graduation, Shannan died her trademark brown hair blonde, and in the next year or two, drastically changed her life. For a time she worked regular day jobs, including being a snack-prepper for a senior center, a hostess for Applebees, and a front desk manager at a hotel. But it wasn't enough for Shannan, who was dreaming bigger.
She moved away from New York to New Jersey, and began to work for Lace Party Girls, a prostitution ring.
In 2007, Shannan fell into some trouble. She was nabbed as part of a sting against Lace Party Girls, and had to suffer through some legal woes. She was also arrested again at some point, for soliciting as a prostitute.
But through Lace Party Girls, she met Alex Diaz, who would become her boyfriend. Diaz was a driver for the company, and the two began to date.
Their relationship was good for a time, and money was becoming effortless for the pair. Both Diaz and Shannan's family recount how generous she was with her earnings, giving them money when needed and buying them lavish gifts of clothing, gadgets, and jewelry.
Shannan with her mother, Mari; her boyfriend, Alex; and her sister Sarra
But when Lace Party Girls was shut down, the cash flow was cut off. Things began to get rocky between Shannan and Diaz, especially after Shannan had a couple of abortions to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and her occasional drug use had already transitioned to being a regular thing. She had begun doing drugs like cocaine and ecstacy with clients, but both of those joined alcohol into her normal repertoire and was beginning to become a problem.
Shannan moved in with Diaz to his father's home in Jersey City, and Shannan began looking to other agencies for work. Things continued to deteriorate between the two, and fights were becoming more common.
Alex Diaz recalls one fight that became physical. When Shannan returned home one night, intoxicated, a fight broke out, which ended with Diaz punching Shannon in the jaw. The hit required surgery on Shannan's part, and she needed to get a metal part inserted to help repair her fractured jaw.
It is also worth noting, at this point, that in her early adulthood, Shannan had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. However, while the means of that diagnosis remain unknown, it appears that her bipolar disorder had gone untreated. And the fact that she was a frequent drug user does nothing to help cure that mental disorder, but may have worked in conjecture to explain some of her dramatic mood swings.
By 2010, Shannan had begun working independently. She wasn't working for a prostitution agency any more, but was booking her own appointments through websites like Backpage and Craigslist. She worked with a driver - now known as Michael Pak - who would drive her to appointments and help provide a level of security. Shannan and Michael had met at her last agency, where he had also worked as a driver, and the two decided that they could make more money without the middleman of the agency.
Shannan had dreams of moving on from prostitution in the very near-future. She had begun taking online college courses in communications, and had even started going to singing auditions in Manhattan. She was trying to make her dreams come true.
On April 30th, 2010, Shannan and Alex Diaz went to a scary movie. They had snuck in Taco Bell food to the theater, Diaz recalled, but she was going to be working that night.
Hours later, She would leave their apartment, where they had moved just months beforehand, with a noticeable thud. And just like that, Alex Diaz would never see his girlfriend again.
Michael Pak, Shannan's driver, had been working with her for just a few months.
Michael Pak is somewhat of an anomaly in this story. He was a 41-year old Asian American from Queens, whose personal story is a complete mystery. The only thing really known about him is that he used to enjoy posting videos of his cats on Youtube, and that he started working with Shannan sometime in 2009.
To say that he was just a driver is a little bit of an understatement. These "drivers," as they're called, essentially work as pimps for the women they transport; they act as security, they do drive, they fetch items while the women are with clients, but they also collect a cut of the money made that night. It's not far-fetched to say that they collect up to half of the total money earned, if not more.
After going on the Taco Bell/movie date with Diaz, Shannan left with her driver, Michael. The two were taking the hour-and-a-half drive out to Oak Beach, to meet up with a client. She normally didn't travel that far for clients, but sometimes the money was just too good to pass up.
Joseph Brewer was a 47-year old bachelor that lived alone in his house on Oak Beach. He was an out-of-work financial advisor that had recently separated from his wife, and apparently had been enjoying himself a bit too much since.
Joseph Brewer was known to have a bit of an appetite for paid sex, at least according to one of his neighbors, who also said that his house had become a bit of a party pad since his wife had left. It wasn't unusual, then, that the SUV carrying Michael Pak and Shannan Gilbert arrived at around two o'clock that morning, in the wee hours of May 1st.
While Shannan went inside to meet with Brewer, her client, Michael Pak remained outside in the SUV.
Phone records show six short calls made between Shannan and Michael, along with a call to a nearby CVS, located in West Islip, at around 2:55 AM. Shannan wanted Michael to go pick up some lube and a deck of playing cards for her, but Michael said that he didn't know the area, so he wouldn't.
What happens over the next couple of hours is anyone's guess. But sometime that morning, something happened that would change the lives of all three individuals forever.
Sometime between 4:30 and 5:00 AM, Joseph Brewer tried to get Michael's attention.
Shannan was inside his house, and he wanted her to leave. Or so he says.
He had tried to grab Shannan from behind and force her out of his house, but had failed. So now he was summoning Michael, Shannan's driver, to come and do it for him.
Shannan had taken cover behind one of Brewer's couches, and had her cell phone in-hand. She had already dialed 9-1-1, and started to tell them ominous words: "they're trying to kill me."
Shannan's phone call was placed at 4:51 AM. Right at that time, she ran out of Brewer's house, away from both the client and Michael Pak, claiming that they - either Brewer, Pak, or someone else - were trying to kill her.
According to his own statement, Brewer went upstairs in his house and had nothing to do with Shannan beyond that incident. He would claim that the two never had sex, and that he hadn't even paid her for sex. In fact, he said that the reason for their sudden altercation, despite being in the same house for over two hours, was because he thought she was a man, and didn't want to have sex with her. It's a bit of a stretch, on his part.
With Brewer presumably still in his house, Michael Pak hopped into his SUV to try and track down Shannan. In his words, he thought that this was a trick on her part, to avoid paying him "his cut," so he was annoyed and probably a little angry when setting out to find her.
I told you a good amount of the story in the introduction to this episode. Shannan knocked on doors, cried out for help, screamed that an unknown "they" were trying to kill her, and actually stayed on the line with her 9-1-1 call for over twenty-three minutes.
Because of the odd jurisdiction of Oak Beach, being located so close to a state park and technically belonging to a city ten minutes away, her emergency call was forwarded to the state police. It also didn't help that she couldn't quite state where she was; she apparently told the dispatchers on the other end of the line that she was in Jones Beach, which was close but still miles away.
Michael Pak claims that he was searching for her until six o'clock in the morning. In his words, "from pitch black to sunny dawn." Until, at which point, he left the area altogether, claiming to never see the police arrive. If he had stayed and spoken to police, Shannan might have been found that morning.
Instead, Shannan Gilbert wasn't reported missing for nearly two days.
Alex Diaz, Shannan's boyfriend whom she shared a tumultuous relationship with, noticed something was up after Shannan hadn't returned home the day after her appointment with Brewer. The following day, he would get in touch with Michael Pak, Shannan's driver.
Michael told Alex what had happened: Shannan meeting with the client, going nuts after a few hours, and then running off into the night in a drug-fueled craze.
Alex took steps to get in-touch with Joseph Brewer, the client. From there, Diaz tried to re-trace Shannan's footsteps, even hesitantly travelling out to Oak Beach with a gun to meet with Brewer. Brewer was apparently as straightforward and honest as possible, both recall, and even went with Diaz to the police department to try and report Shannan missing.
The officers at that Suffolk County police precinct basically just laughed at the entire situation. They told Diaz to go home, as that was the most likely place to find Shannan Gilbert. Then, they said, that if she wasn't home, to file a missing persons report there, in Jersey City.
So, he did. But a day later, Shannan was still nowhere to be seen and the police didn't seem very interested at all in trying to look for a missing prostitute. Alex Diaz decided to make another trip out to Oak Beach, and met someone willing to help look for his lost girlfriend.
This is where the story takes a very weird turn.
Two days after Shannan's disappearance, on May 3rd, her mother, Mari Gilbert, would receive a call from a stranger.
"Hello," said the voice on the other end. It was the voice of an older male, who gave his name freely.
"My name is Dr. Peter Hackett. I'm calling to see if your daugher Shannan is there."
Mari is immediately alerted to... something. She's just not sure of what.
"No. Why? Who are you?" she asks.
The voice on the other end, Dr. Peter Hackett, explains that he runs a house for wayward girls. He further explains that Shannan had been with him two days beforehand, right when she went missing, and that he had taken her in off of the street after she began knocking on his door. He would also claim that he had given her something - by that I mean a drug - to calm down and collect herself.
Apparently, at that point, she went missing, leaving with her driver and not returning.
Mari asks how this stranger got her number, to which Hackett explains that all of the people that stay with him - at his alleged halfway house - have to give an emergency contact.
This further confunds Mari, who knows that none of her family would give out her phone number to anyone. Also, she hasn't heard anything about Shannan going missing.
Shannan's family filed a missing persons report for her in Jersey City, where she lived. They had found out about Shannan meeting up with a client on Oak Beach through Alex Diaz, Shannan's boyfriend, but the police wouldn't make the connection between this missing persons report and the multiple 9-1-1 calls made on Oak Beach for over a month.
Roughly a week later, on Mother's Day - May 9th, 2010 - Mari Gilbert and the rest of Shannan's family would travel to Oak Beach to put up fliers and ask the neighborhood if they had seen anything.
Dr. Peter Hackett would later detail this as the first time he had ever spoken to the Gilbert family. He immediately denied ever calling Mari Gilbert, and claimed that he had never seen Shannan Gilbert before in his life.
The Gilbert family reported this strange phone call to the New Jersey police squad that took their missing persons report. Unfortunately, this police squad was located miles away, where Shannan Gilbert actually lived. They were not in contact with anyone from Suffolk County, where Shannan had actually gone missing.
Even with all of this unfolding out on Oak Beach, no one would come by to look for Shannan for over a month.
Dr. Peter Hackett
Dr. Peter Hackett was a former physician, who had worked for Suffolk County as a police surgeon. He was married, with children of his own and was, by my guess at this point in-time, well into his fifties or early sixties.
When one looks at Dr. Hackett, they don't see a serial killer or a notorious liar. But beyond the surface, there's definitely something fishy going on with him.
Hackett was known by many in Suffolk County to be a bit of a nuisance. Many claimed that he was a serial exaggerator, who liked to put his nose where it shouldn't belong.
In 1996, TWA Flight 800 took off from JFK International Airport, headed for Rome, but exploded somewhere above New York. 230 passengers were killed aboard that flight, and many of their bodies were scattered throughout New York, particularly the Suffolk County area. Hackett embarrassed his coworkers by embellishing his role as an investigator in that incident, and from that point forward, had a figurative target placed on his back.
Years later, he would be fired for misusing a work cell phone and for claiming to be at work when he was actually absent.
Over the years, rumors would circulate that he used his expertise as a doctor to illegally prescribe pharmaceuticals- particularly opiates, which he allegedly consumes on his own. Two of his neighbors would sign affidavits claiming to have been witness to him acting as a doctor out of his own kitchen, trying to mend injuries or prescribe some kind of medication.
Peter Hackett's place in this story - the disappearance of Shannan Gilbert - is entirely fascinating to me. He doesn't have a direct tie to either Shannan, Michael Pak, or his neighbor from down the street, Joseph Brewer. He claims to have never met any of them. He was married to his longtime wife, had a son and a daughter living at home with him, and had both college and high school graduation trips in his near-future.
However, no one can deny that Dr. Peter Hackett went out of his way to insert himself into this story. The blame for that lies solely on him, because the truth about Mari Gilbert's claims would soon come to light.
Dr. Peter Hackett
Dr. Peter Hackett was not running a halfway home, nor a home for wayward girls. That much is certain. Whatever possibility there was of that was eliminated the moment that Hackett denied ever speaking to Mari Gilbert.
However, it is possible that Hackett did tell that to Mari Gilbert over the phone. Because phone records show that Hackett DID call Mari Gilbert from his wife's cell phone, sometime in the early afternoon of May 3rd. How exactly he got Mari Gilbert's phone number is anyone's guess, because Shannan would not be reported missing until that day, and her phone number hadn't been released by anyone. In fact, police hadn't come to ask questions yet; and wouldn't, for over a month.
Both him and Alex Diaz, Shannan's boyfriend, recall meeting on May 4th, when Diaz made his second trip out to Oak Beach. But this would be a day after the phone call in question, and bring about the question of how Dr. Hackett knew what he did.
So, in someway and somehow, Peter Hackett learned of Shannan Gilbert's disappearance and also discovered a phone number to her mother.
Also, what's more concerning: records show that the phone call wasn't made from Oak Beach. The cell phone Hackett was using was close enough to Mari Gilbert's home in New Jersey to warrant suspicion. That's right: Hackett travelled to New Jersey to make that call to Mari Gilbert, and phone records show that he immediately lied about it.
He would also call Shannan Gilbert's boyfriend, Alex Diaz, on May 6th, along with another call to Mari Gilbert. Hackett would recall making these phone calls, claiming that he was wishing them well in the search for Shannan. However, this again goes against his prior statements; he claims to have met the Gilberts and their associates on May 9th, three days after this second batch of calls was placed.
Even if he wasn't involved in the disappearance of Shannan Gilbert, something fishy was going on with Dr. Peter Hackett. In the week after Shannan's disappearance, Hackett shows off behavior that is alarming, or at the very least, deeply concerning.
Due to the troubled start to the investigation, Suffolk County detectives didn't come out to Oak Beach to investigate Shannan Gilbert's disappearance for over a month. They finally got around to interviewing the neighborhood - including Gus Coletti, Barbara Brennan, and Shannan's client, Joe Brewer.
Unfortunately, they really uncovered nothing. The detectives and police officers involved took some statements and did a little poking around, but to them, this was just a missing hooker. Nothing more.
Detectives spoke to Michael Pak, Shannan's driver, who told them that Shannan had been hesitant to pay him "his cut," and had likely run away. He claimed to have taken a polygraph test, something we all know is in no way a sure thing to prove innocence or guilt, and passed it, clearing him of any guilt.
Joe Brewer claimed that he had had Shannan over that night, but that the two had not had sex, despite her being in his house for nearly three hours.
Dr. Peter Hackett denied having any involvement in Shannan's disappearance, and stuck to his statements about never knowing her or any of the Gilberts.
All three were cleared as suspects in Shannan's disappearance before she was even located. And what's worse is the knowledge that police COULD have taken the time to try and find her quite easily, but chose not to. Whether this was due to miscommunication between the Jersey City police department where her family filed the missing persons report and Oak Beach, where she disappeared, or simply due to discrimination of her profession as a prostitute, is anyone's guess.
The gated community had several security cameras pointed at spots throughout the neighborhood, cameras which might not have offered any definitive proof but at least helped point detectives in the direction of where Shannan had gone that fateful morning. These cameras was useless by the time that Suffolk County police showed up, their memories overwritten a dozen times over.
It was only by happenstance that any progress was made in the case. Sadly, "progress" means that one of the most horrifying discoveries in Long Island history was about to take place.
John Mallia and his partner, Blue
John Mallia was a thirty-one-year veteran of the Suffolk County Police Department. A former-private-investigator-turned-officer, Mallia was an expert at finding people, dead or living.
Mallia was also a canine officer, whose partner-in-law enforcement, Blue, had been with him for over seven years at this point in 2010.
A little over a month after Shannan Gilbert had gone missing, it was Mallia that was given the task to look around the Oak Beach area where she had disappeared from. With his German Shepherd partner Blue in-tow, fifty-nine-year old Mallia headed out to the small, coastal neighborhood and began searching for the missing woman.
The two searched around the Oak Beach area for months, without finding so much as a trace of Shannan's tracks. The two scoped neighborhood and coastline, hoping to find at least something resembling Shannan Gilbert's belongings, but came away with nothing.
Months continued to pass, with no headway in the case happening. Mari Gilbert kept checking in with the Jersey City police to see if her daughter missing persons file had been updated, but there was nothing. The three men surrounding her absence had been cleared by police of any wrongdoing, and Officer John Mallia continued to make occasional trips to the area where Shannan Gilbert had last been seen.
All of those trips were unsuccessful. At least, until the morning of December 10th.
December 10th, 2010. Shannan Gilbert had been missing for over six months now, just another missing prostitute in an area full of them. The only ones that gave notice to her prolonged absence were her family members, who had been given the cold shoulder by investigators for months due to Shannan's profession.
Officer John Mallia drove out to Oak Beach with Blue, in the hopes of at least giving the dog a little bit of tracking training. It was brisk and cold outside, just a hair above freezing, when Mallia pulled over on the side of the highway.
It was here, on the side of the four-lane Ocean Parkway, that Mallia hoped to find some trace of Shannan. He had remembered reading something from the FBI that showed how most bodies, when left by a killer, were dumped within thirty feet of the road.
Right around three in the afternoon, after walking through the prickly brush for a short amount of time, Blue began to wag his tail and make some adjustments with his head. Officer Mallia immediately recognized this as a sign of him picking up something; a sign of something being found.
Mallia followed Blue into the marshy undergrowth, with the thick nettles surrounding them. The Officer followed his canine companion deeper into the muck, before stumbling upon an object of note roughly fifty feet away from the Ocean Parkway.
It was a disintegrated burlap sack. Inside, Mallia discovered, was the skeletonized remains of a human being.
Sadly, it wasn't the body of Shannan Gilbert. But it was the first of nearly eleven bodies that would be uncovered over the next year, and the first sign that a serial killer had been using the area as a personal dumping ground for years.
"Lost Girls" by Robert Kolker
VICE News - "Inside the Bizarre, Unsolved Case of the Long Island Serial Killer"
NJ.com - "Jersey City prostitute still missing after 13 months of searching"
New York Times - "Officer and His Dog Play Key Role in Hunt for Remains"
New York Times - "Growing Body Count, but Search for a Woman Goes On"
New York Times - "Discovery Raises Suspicion of a Serial Killer"
CBS News - "'48 Hours' uncovers missing escort Shannan Gilbert's final moments"
CBS News - "'48 Hours' - The Long Island Serial Killer"