While investigators scour miles of desolate New York beachfront from the tops of fire trucks and map plans for officers to traverse a daunting morass of thicket on horseback in search of more victims, dozens of detectives are inspecting credit card receipts, telephone records, old traffic tickets and even applications for clamming licenses in the hunt for a possible serial killer.
Eight victims have now been found dumped just steps from Ocean Parkway, a highway leading to the popular Jones Beach State Park. The news has rattled nerves throughout Long Island; one mother snapped at a stranger outside a public library about fears for her safety and schoolteachers say they are sensing fear in the voices of their students.
"Whether they're prostitutes or not, we don't care about that in our community," said Jose Trinidad of Bay Shore, a community just north of the Robert Moses Bridge, about five miles from where the bodies were found. "We care that there's a murderer loose out there and he's killing human beings. He could kill somebody else."
Fifth-grade teacher Bridget Borland says the startling news has trickled down to her students.
"It's just concerning them," she said. "When they talk about it they joke, but they're really concerned. I hope this is the end, that there are no more bodies. It's sad for the families."
Investigators following up on the disappearance of a Jersey City, N.J., woman seen working as a Craigslist escort in the area last spring, happened upon the corpses of four women late last year. They were identified as missing prostitutes who also booked clients over the Internet. Four more bodies were found when officers returned to the area in the past two weeks; they have yet to be identified, even by gender. All eight were found within a three-mile radius on the north side of the parkway.
None of the victims, however, is 24-year-old Shannan Gilbert, whose disappearance remains an open case.
Murdered somewhere else?
Detectives said it appears some victims had been dead for a long time. Investigators believe the four women found in December were likely killed somewhere else and dumped by the beach highway. The first went missing in 2007; a second in 2009 and the remaining two in June and September 2010.
Although it appears daunting, one Suffolk County investigator, who declined to be identified because of the ongoing investigation, told The Associated Press that detectives are taking a methodical approach to finding a suspect. They are poring over credit card records of the victims to track their movements and determine whether they spent money in the area. They are also checking cell phone calls to map the women's movements.
Computer records of the women's communications and their appointment records have also been reviewed, he said.
Others are looking at a spectrum of public documents, including records about traffic stops and tickets that may have been issued on Ocean Parkway or nearby at the time: "Son of Sam" killer David Berkowitz was caught after police linked a parking ticket he got to one of the crime scenes. They also are reviewing more mundane paperwork, like applications for clamming licenses, in case the killer may have dumped the bodies onto the narrow barrier island from the Great South Bay.
"These kinds of investigations have to take slow steps; you don't want to jump to conclusions," said Katherine Ramsland, a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa., and author of "The Human Predator: A Historical Chronicle of Serial Murder and Forensic Investigation."
"They are looking at the evidence to determine what may be similar about the victims, but they also want to look at dissimilarities," she said.
Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer noted that each additional discovery of remains increases the likelihood of finding the killer.
"Any time we find remains of a victim, there's always the possibility that you'll find some clues," he said last week. "You never know what's going to show up."
Tom Mansfield, a retired New York Police Department detective who investigated homicides for the cold case squad, thinks Suffolk police may have a suspect in mind, but are keeping quiet on many aspects of their investigation for tactical reasons.
"They don't want to identify a suspect because they don't want to raise suspicions," Mansfield said. "This person is likely watching the news reports about what is going on."
Mansfield predicts detectives also are likely scouring hours of surveillance video from train stations, hotel lobbies and other public places where the women may have been seen.
"After 9-11 there are cameras everywhere. I am sure someone is at work reviewing this," he said. The location where the bodies were found seems an ideal place for the killer. It's remote and it's desolate."
Police, fire trucks, cadaver dogs search
Suffolk investigators wrapped up an intensive four-day search of a seven mile stretch of Ocean Parkway this week, an effort that included investigators peering into the foot-tall tangle of sea grass punctuated by scrubby pine trees with binoculars from atop fire truck ladders. They also brought in 25 members of the police academy who scoured the poison-ivy infested thicket on foot with cadaver dogs assisting.
The search for more human remains moves westward to a different police jurisdiction next week — closer to Jones Beach— where Nassau County police intend to deploy mounted police units, fire trucks and cadaver dogs in their effort. Nassau officials say they are joining the search to ensure a thorough investigation since eight victims were found so close by.
In the Suffolk community of West Islip, about four miles from where the bodies were found, several mothers of young children leaving the local library refused to answer a reporter's questions about the case. One of the mothers snapped that people are currently afraid to encounter strangers in the current atmosphere.
Vincent Benazzi, a physical education teacher at Bay Shore High School, said the mystery is being discussed throughout the school. "It's not only the students, but I have a 21-year-old daughter who just moved in with me who's very concerned about it as well. Whether or not it's a dumping ground or whatever they want to call it, it's just a sick feeling."
He lamented: "You know we're supposed to be enjoying getting ready for the fishing season in a couple of weeks and the excitement of the summer and all that stuff. It just kind of gives it a little bit of a black eye."