Relatives of those found at Gilgo Beach, including Mari Gilbert, mother of Shannan Gilbert;  Melissa Cann, sister of Maureen Brainard-Barnes;  and Lorraine Ela, mother of Megan Waterman, at a vigil in Oak Beach, N.Y., on Dec. 13, 2011. (Uli Seit/The New York Times)

Relatives of those found at Gilgo Beach, including Mari Gilbert, mother of Shannan Gilbert; Melissa Cann, sister of Maureen Brainard-Barnes; and Lorraine Ela, mother of Megan Waterman, at a vigil in Oak Beach, N.Y., on Dec. 13, 2011. (Uli Seit/The New York Times)

NEW YORK — Twelve years ago, on the Monday after Easter in 2011, on a gray afternoon in New London, Connecticut, Melissa Cann sat at a picnic table on a pier, talking about her older sister, Maureen Brainard-Barnes, who he disappeared on a trip to Manhattan four years earlier. Although Cann described herself as a homebody, she said her older sister was free-spirited, artistic, daring and often clashed with her mother. Brainard-Barnes had worked as a blackjack dealer, as a clerk at a ShopRite and, in the six months before she disappeared, as her escort.

Cann spoke in a breathy voice about police dismissing any claim that her sister was really missing; the unsuccessful trips her husband and Cann’s brother made to New York to look for her; the difficulty, because she was an escort, of even putting Brainard-Barnes’s name on an official missing persons list. She talked about the children left behind by her sister, an 11-year-old girl and a 5-year-old boy, and admitted that she was surprised by her sister’s escort work. She was afraid to question her sister’s choices, but she was also sorry that she couldn’t protect her.

For three years, Cann did practically nothing but think about his sister.

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Then, in December 2010, everything changed: Brainard-Barnes’s remains were found along Gilgo Beach on Long Island. The remains of three other women were nearby. Melissa Barthelemy disappeared from her Bronx apartment in 2009. Megan Waterman disappeared in May 2010 and was last seen leaving a hotel on Long Island. Amber Costello had left her home in Babylon, New York, that September, never to be seen again. All four women were petite and all four came in from out of town to work as escorts.

Now that there was a crime attached, the police became interested, but these women soon found themselves reduced to one dimension. Their profession made them plot devices in an established true crime story. Who they were mattered less than the mystery surrounding their deaths.

As police scoured the beach for more bodies in the spring of 2010 (and found several), Cann and the relatives of the other women found themselves in a peculiar predicament. For one, they were energized. Now that they were part of a serial killer case, the world was making its way to their doors; maybe there could even be a break in the case. Then came the horrible hangover of seeing her daughters and sisters on the news, constantly referred to as prostitutes. The point that Cann made to me on that pier was similar to what all the family members eventually told me: These women were more than this.

“I don’t like how they talk about her,” Cann told me. “I understand that they only know what she was doing down there, and that’s how they see her. But it doesn’t matter what she did. She was still a mother. She still meant the world to her daughter, she meant the world to me.”

The police seemed reluctant to take the case seriously at first and had not actually been looking for these women at all. They were found by chance, after a fifth woman, Shannan Gilbert, went missing in 2010 during an escort date in Oak Beach, 3 miles from where the first four women were discovered.

At a public safety hearing on Long Island in May 2011, as rescue teams and police officers were still searching through the brambles of Gilgo Beach, Dominick Varrone, chief of detectives for the Suffolk County Police Department, suggested that the public could be at ease because the killer was selecting only a certain type of victim. The subtext was clear: if the victims had been successful and well educated, like the victims of David Berkowitz, the serial killer known as the Son of Sam, all of Long Island might be in a panic. But everyone could relax. Sex workers did not seem to deserve the same consideration.

Fast forward a decade, to July 14, 2023. Cann was on Long Island, standing with her husband at a press conference and announcing an arrest in the case that had dogged her for 16 years. Joining them were family members of two other victims: Barthelemy’s sister, Amanda, and Waterman’s daughter, Lili.

District Attorney Raymond Tierney said that while the suspect in custody for the murders represented the worst of humanity, the families of the victims seemed to him to embody the best in all of us. Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison gave Cann and each of the family members a big hug. It’s a big difference, 12 years – victims seem to matter.

To Cann’s point, the media no longer identifies the victims as prostitutes, but as people who earn money through sex work. Earlier that morning, Governor Kathy Hochul led an impromptu moment of silence in honor of the victims. She was a far cry from what Shannan Gilbert’s mother, Mari, once said: “I think they look at them like they’re disposable. Do not care.

Just as there is no single form of poverty, there is also no defined set of family patterns or life circumstances that lead to the decisions these women made. There is no formula to explain what brought them to Gilgo Beach. Human trafficking was a factor for one, addiction for another.

But if they shared something, it is that they never disconnected or lived on the street as dictated by the procedural television stereotype. They all stayed close to their families. They all came from towns with narrowing options and were looking for a way out. That’s one way of looking at “The Lost Girls,” the title of my book on this case, which was later made into a movie: they were only “lost” to the extent that we (the police, the media, the social security) we choose to lose. them, deciding they were worth discarding.

Serial killers understand this, of course. Jack the Ripper targeted the women he sought out for presumably the same reason the Green River Killer and Joel Rifkin said they did: these were women they believed no one would go looking for. And most of the time, sadly, they were right.

Now, 16 years after Brainard-Barnes’ disappearance, we have an arrest, a suspect: Rex Heuermann, it seems, was living in plain sight, in a Long Island town a short drive from where the bodies were found. He has a spouse and children, and a job with a relatively high profile. In a place as densely populated as New York, he is accused of a double life that seems difficult to contemplate.

His advantage, it seemed, was that no one was looking for him either. In cases involving escort work, the male clients often seem like footnotes, at least to the public. Police locked up Heuermann only last year, more than a decade after the four bodies were found on Gilgo Beach.

For Cann and the other members of the family, it’s an eternity of wondering and waiting, and feeling as discarded as the loved ones they lost.

c.2023 The New York Times Company

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