OAK BEACH, N.Y. — The U.S. Justice Department should take over the investigation into 11 bodies found along a remote New York beach highway over the past year, the attorney for a woman whose daughter's body was discovered last week said Tuesday.
John Ray spoke Tuesday at a news conference near where 24-year-old Shannan Gilbert's remains were found last week. Gilbert's mother, Mari, also attended the news conference.
Investigators believe a possible serial killer — perhaps more than one — is responsible for 10 of the bodies. Police and prosecutors have said that they don't think Gilbert was an 11th victim; they think she accidentally drowned.
Mari, however, said she believes her daughter was among the serial killer victims, and Ray faulted local authorities for publicly disagreeing about whether one or more killers are involved. He likened the investigation to a 1960s sitcom.
"When you have all these local authorities that are acting like they're from 'The Andy Griffith Show' and bumping into each other, and not doing their job, that's when you bring in the federal government," Ray said.
Suffolk County police have said a K-9 officer and his cadaver dog were on a training mission searching for Gilbert last December when they happened upon what would become 10 sets of human remains strewn along several miles of thicket adjacent to the Ocean Parkway on Long Island. Police discovered Gilbert's remains last week after officials ramped up their search for the Jersey City, N.J., woman as the anniversary of the first discovery approached.
Police Commissioner Richard Dormer, who leaves office at the end of this month, has said that Gilbert's death is unrelated to the others.
The 10 other victims were found at least three miles west of where officials found Gilbert in a watery marsh. Some of the other remains were found more than 10 miles away from Gilbert's, and officials later linked some of those body parts to dismembered victims found more than 40 miles from Ocean Parkway since 1996.
Gilbert was last seen screaming and running from an Oak Beach home where she met a client for sex on May 1, 2010. Dormer has said she ran into nearly inaccessible marshland and likely drowned. The medical examiner determined on Saturday that the remains were Gilbert's but has yet to determine a cause of death.
Dormer also has said in recent interviews that he believes the 10 others — eight women, a man and a toddler — were all the victims of the same serial killer. Dormer believes that the nine adults were somehow linked to the sex trade and that the toddler was the child of one of them.
That pronouncement has drawn fire from Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, who has noted that only five of the 10 have been positively identified. He believes it would be a stretch to conclude that all 10 were in the sex trade without knowing who they were. Spota said other unanswered questions about the case make it impossible to link all the deaths to one culprit.
FBI spokesman James Margolin said the agency has provided assistance to Suffolk County authorities over the past year, including aerial surveillance photography, and said they remain available to assist with any requests. He did not comment specifically on Ray's call for the FBI to take over the investigation.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office declined to comment. The Suffolk County police did not immediately respond to a call for comment.
Mari Gilbert said until a cause of death is determined, she is not making funeral plans for her daughter. But, she insists that Gilbert did not die accidentally.
"I believe that Shannan was murdered and I believe that she was part of the serial killings," she said. "Today I hope this brings us one step closer to finding the killer. But we need help. We need help from the public. We need help from the FBI. We need help from the news media.
"Think of this as if it were your child. How would you feel if someone could help but didn't want to, didn't care," she said.
Ray also called for a federal investigation of how Gilbert's missing persons case was initially handled. He noted that Gilbert had made a rambling cellphone call to 911 that lasted more than 20 minutes the morning she disappeared.
Dormer has said that call went to state police operators because they patrol Ocean Parkway; he said state police could never determine the woman's location, because the only landmark she spoke about was Jones Beach, about 15 miles west of Oak Beach.
It was only when Oak Beach neighbors who encountered Gilbert seeking help called 911 from their home phones that police subsequently arrived. Some estimates are it took 45 minutes or longer for officers to get there.
Ray also criticized the police response after their arrival, noting Gilbert may have still been alive in those first hours after she disappeared.
"If it turns out somehow that Shannan died by drowning, that doesn't establish that she died accidentally," Ray said. "If she did drown, did somebody drown her? Did somebody chase her into the bog to drown her?"
Dormer has defended the officer who responded to the call that morning, saying he did everything properly.