M. William Phelps: “Lost Girls” & Finding The Long Island Serial Killer

mw_phelpsBy M. William Phelps

Jaclyn Gallucci is young, attractive, dedicated, and driven. She works a full-time job as an editor for Anton Community Newspapers, and spends her nights studying at NYU, working toward fulfilling a dream in publishing (print and digital media). She has won a host of journalism awards.

I want to eventually create a web-based publication/site with resources focusing on missing persons and unidentified human remains …”

Jackie has lived on Long Island for most of her life. She speaks with an inherent sense of compassion for the victims in what has become known as the Long Island Serial Killer case; something I felt immediately when in her presence. Although a lot of credit has been given to others and much hype built around the term “Lost Girls” when referring to the Long Island victims, it was actually Jackie who wrote the articleLost Girls: When Women Disappear, Some Matter, Prostitutes Don’t”, published on October 10, 2010. The article tied the girls to this moniker months before the Gilgo Beach portion of the Long Island case broke and any of the bodies (or body parts) were uncovered and connected to body parts located on the other side of the island.

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Jackie is one of those rare reporters today that embodies the job description “investigative journalist.” She lives and breathes this work. I asked what sparked her interest in these cases long before that search for Shannon Gilbert unearthed the bodies and body parts found near Gilgo Beach in December 2010.

I had been investigating cold case unidentified homicide victims on Long Island [in the Manorville area],” she explained. “There was a series of bodies that were found across the island and no one was asking questions. No one knew who they were. They didn’t have names. So there were no families involved. I had gone on the NAMUS database [website] to look into cases. I went into the missing person [link] and came across a name.

That name was Megan Waterman (pictured on her mother’s cell phone above), whose body was ultimately found just off Ocean Parkway near Gilgo Beach. Megan was one of the four found along a brief stretch of roadway east of the Gilgo Beach parking lot, each woman’s severely decomposed body tossed about fifteen/twenty-five feet off the side of the roadway. Shannon Gilbert was found several miles further away, east, on the opposite side of the parkway, near Oak Beach. Without that search for Shannon, those bodies would still be lying on the side of the roadway and the remaining bodies and body parts still spread throughout the area.

When I first wrote the [“Lost Girls”] article all I wanted was for Megan to be found,” Jackie told me. “I remember the day they identified her and I felt sick because I felt like I knew her.

At the time she found Megan’s name on the NAMUS database, Jackie developed a hunch: That Megan might be one of those unidentified girls found across the island in Manorville. Jackie, same as everyone else, had no idea then that Megan’s body was decomposing along Ocean Parkway near Gilgo Beach.

Megan disappeared within miles of my house and I never heard about it and I couldn’t believe I never heard about it because this girl, this young girl, had disappeared. But she was a prostitute, so there wasn’t much information about it.

Megan’s case had been, like many before and after, forgotten. No one seemed to care, simply because of what she did to make ends meet.

Jackie had seen a few flyers at a nearby ShopRite that Megan’s family hung. She was interested in the story immediately. She had been looking into unidentified homicide victims. Several bodies (and body parts) had been found in the Manorville area in various states: dismembered, skeletonized, badly decomposed. At the time, they were all Jane Does.

… They don’t have anybody advocating for them and one of those cases led me into these missing person cases that led to Megan Waterman.”

Megan was a young woman, like Jackie, and Megan had disappeared within miles of Jackie’s house. This was shocking to the young reporter. But like any hungry investigative journalist, it sparked her interest. So she started digging.

I never realized … it was a serial killer case. I thought it was sex trafficking. At this point everyone thought that Megan had been taken out of the country, out of the state somewhere, and no one thought she had been murdered. So I wrote that story ‘Lost Girls’ and it was focused on trying to get information to get Megan back to her family.

For Jackie, her hope is that the Gilgo Beach community and the surrounding towns and counties ultimately get those answers. She is very passionate about this.

You know, for people like me who’ve grown up here, that area now … I don’t even like driving over there. I drive by once a week … it was always a beautiful place. It was always the place where everyone grew up, where everyone had fun. It was the beach. Just beautiful. But now it’s a graveyard. I just would like to take that back. You know, give these women justice. Make it beautiful again because it’s had this cloud hanging over it.

I thought about this after talking with Jackie. It’s funny that when Megan was a missing prostitute, no one really gave two shakes; but the moment she became the victim of a “serial killer,” the media showed up in herds.

It gets sexy then,” Jackie agreed. Jackie was there on the ground when these cases broke. She witnessed the frenzy. “People like a serial killer story. They don’t like dead prostitutes on the beach. It’s not as attractive. But once a serial killer is involved, well, then all of a sudden, it’s like … TV time.

And here’s one of the scariest facts about the connection this case has to the sex trade. Jackie’s done a lot of research on the subject, her interest first sparked by that discovery of Megan Waterman going missing.

There are a lot of … other women that have been murdered that have been prostitutes. … This has been going on for decades. Their cases are cold.” She’s referring to many one-off murders; cases not officially connected to the Gilgo bodies. “Nobody knows and just nobody cares. But, someone gets killed who’s a school teacher and it makes national headlines and people, strangers, come out in droves. You know that’s great. But why not for the other person, too? It doesn’t matter how they lived. It’s still murder.

It’s hard to argue with that conclusion.

On the Long Island episode of Dark Minds, we will present a theory brought to us by one very scared, passionate, caring woman. Our intention with this episode is to explore possibilities beyond what have already been completely exhausted by other media outlets. Dark Minds serves no purpose if it only rehashes what others have done. What I want to make clear about our work is that if we do not look at cases differently, we’ll never find answers. We want people to come forward, even if the information they have is totally out of that box the media has placed this case—or any!—into. It’s vitally important for potential tipsters not to feel that the information they have won’t be helpful. Allow law enforcement to make that call. And always remember, your safety, your anonymity (if you desire it), is first and foremost.

Finally, I have sifted through—even before we started filming the Long Island episode—dozens of emails from people across the country who believe they’ve figured the Long Island case out. It’s never been about solving cases for me. I have never set out to solve cases on Dark Minds. It’s about gathering information, some new, some old, and presenting that information to the public so you can help law enforcement and together we can reignite interest in cold cases, hopefully moving them one step closer to being solved. We want people to think about and look at these cases differently. We want Investigation Discovery viewers, specifically, many of whom are extremely passionate about crime-solving, to get involved with that process—all of which harkens back to my message for the new season of Dark Minds: If you know something, DO something.

In the second part of his look at the Long Island serial killer case coming this Wednesday, M. William Phelps will introduce you to his investigative mentor, who has some rather eye-opening theories and jarring advice for the law enforcement agencies working on the Long Island case.

 “Dark Minds” airs on Wednesday nights at 9/8c on Investigation Discovery. Serial killer expert M. William Phelps is the national bestselling author/investigative journalist of over 25 nonfiction books, six of which focus on serial murderers. His most recent book, OBSESSED, was published in March 2014. 

Image: ©AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach, File